Brushes with Balsa

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On Monday I quizzed 2015 Forrest Wood Cup winner Brad Knight for the better part of two hours about how he compiles his arsenal of Lew’s Custom Speed Sticks, but we had 15 minutes left before we each had to move on to other projects, so I started digging around in his boat. I’d already been into the depths of the storage lockers on Bill Lowen’s Xpress, where I’d found plenty of valuable Ohio River gems, and I knew that the East Tennessee crew is just as obsessed with balsa. My instincts proved accurate: There, buried among the KVD 1.5s and 6XDs that consistently pay his bills, sat a box full of Tennessee gold just as valuable as anything Jack Daniels can pump out.

It turns out that Knight had worked for famous east Tennessee balsa artiste Sonny McFarland – one of the grand masters of the art. Plenty of anglers from the region, including Craig Powers, Ott DeFoe and Wesley Strader, are fluent in the language of plug construction and selection, and have made oodles of money with them, but few talk about them all that much. Knight knows just as much as any of them, and once cornered he had no choice but to drop a bit of science. His eyes lit up when he did so.

“You want to see something really cool?” he asked, even though he didn’t have to. He pulled out another small crankbait. “That’s an original Little Big O, made by Fred Young.”

It was indeed the crankbait that had spawned the whole square bill phenomenon, one of the sort that Young handcrafted and sold in foam egg cartons. Although Young died in 1985, he’d carved enough baits out of his Tennessee shop that they’d become relatively easy to find in that neck of the woods. Knight estimated that at one time he’d had a couple dozen of them, but since he’s decidedly not a collector, he sold most of them at high market prices to pay for other things. This one, though, had no value to collectors, since it had been repainted multiple times, so he held onto it. The fact that it remained in his boat, easily accessible, tells me that there’s even more to the story that he didn’t reveal – like when, where and how he fishes it in lieu of more modern lures.